IN THE COMPANY OF MEN

Directed and written by Neil LaBute

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy and Stacy Edwards

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

***

Some of my friends avoid reading reviews before going to see a film, out of a desire to experience the film without any preconceptions. Except for a few special cases, I've never found this to be a problem. IN THE COMPANY OF MEN is one of those special cases. The tidal wave of Sundance hype rarely provides any insight into a film, and in this case, it led me to expect an American equivalent of NAKED or a 90s equivalent of John Cassavetes' HUSBANDS or Elaine May's MIKEY AND NICKY: all films about misogynistic louts and/or destructive male friendship. The subject matter may be similar, but IN THE COMPANY OF MEN feels nothing like those films. If HUSBANDS and MIKEY AND NICKY make one feel like the only sober party on an extended bender, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN recalls a rather different experience. Watching it reminded me of the mix of fascination and queasiness that I felt while dissecting frog carcasses in high school biology class. In the gentrified 1997 American "independent" film scene, it's a welcome blast of foul air: a "politically incorrect" but progressive work that deals directly with some of the ugliest aspects of contemporary American life. IN THE COMPANY OF MEN doesn't resemble any other recent American films. That's not to say that it's particularly original; for long stretches, LaBute's dialogue sounds like David Mamet outtakes. (The film's title comes from a M met essay, and LaBute, who has also written plays and directed theater, cites Restoration comedy as an influence.) But even at his most derivative, LaBute draws on several hundred years of theatrical influences, rather than on PULP FICTION, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, CLERKS or THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN.

When the dissection begins, two (straight, white) businessmen in their early 30s are sitting in an airport. Howard, the nerdy one (Matt Malloy), has just gotten slugged in the ear by a woman for the crime of asking her what time zone they're in. Chad, the cute one (Aaron Eckhart, certain to win the hearts of masochists everywhere), takes this as a cue to begin ranting about his betrayals by women. On their way from a nameless big city to a nameless small Midwestern city for a six-week work assignment at a nameless company, they devise a plan to liven up this dull interlude. (We never find out what the company does or makes.) They'll look for a vulnerable woman, whom both men will woo and then abandon when the six weeks are up. The chosen victim is Christine (Stacy Edwards), a deaf secretary. For the first few weeks, the plan takes off like a charm.

The arc of the story is fairly predictable, but the details are genuinely startling. Is it any surprise that Chad's plan is designed as much as an attack on Howard as on Christine? Or that he's incapable of real friendship? That his misogyny and racism are merely the tip of a sociopathic iceberg, while Howard's are rooted in unpleasant experiences with women? That his sociopathy stems from applying the brutality of the corporate ethos to every aspect of life? The characters are so schematically written that a more minimalist film would simply call them Alpha, Beta and The Woman. If anything in the film is surprising, much of the credit has to go to the performances of Eckhart and Malloy. Eckhart's words are vile, but he has a way with them; if it's possible to feel any complicity with his plan, his charm and charisma are the reason why. Malloy does a fine job with the part of Howard, the most complex character of the three and the only one who really changes. Whiny, self-pitying and much less of a nice guy than he thinks he is, he nevertheless seems to have some sense of morality, buried by life in a culture in which it's practically impossible to behave decently. After seen the film twice, I'm still not sure if Edwards is miscast or if her character is simply underwritten. Christine may be deaf, but she looks like a model and isn't any harder to understand than a woman with a heavy foreign accent. Consequently, she never seems as pathetic as the men make her out to be. The film is sympathetic to her, but it's not exactly on "her side." She seems more a token of exchange between the men than a full-fledged character. (Were IN THE COMPANY OF MEN a Fassbinder film, she and Chad would wind up married.) But in the end, she may be more resilient, if not stronger, than Howard. As J. Hoberman suggests, her deafness has a symbolic function: representing women's "exclusion from the realms of linguistic authority." Ironically, in the final scene, it becomes a form of passive resistance.

Ultimately, Chad and Howard's manipulations aren't far from the manipulations inherent in filmmaking. To succeed in corporate culture, they've had to become actors, to learn how to hide their hatred and suck up to the right people. When Chad humiliates a young black intern by asking him to literally "Show me your balls," he behaves like a director asking an aspiring young actress to go topless. In fact, he's a master actor/director, while Howard can't tell when he's directing and when he's being directed. Being in the company of men, the film suggests, means being directed. I'm reminded of a film that devotes most of its time to the ideological implications of directing and acting: Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 1995 SALAM CINEMA. SALAM CINEMA goes even further; a documentary in which Makhmalbaf plays himself conducting a series of sadistic auditions of nonprofessional actors, it suggest that being directed is a form of psychological torture. For me, SALAM CINEMA is disturbing in ways that IN THE COMPANY MEN doesn't even come close to matching. It may be because Makhmalbaf's misanthropy and authoritarianism initially seem justified by the silliness of the aspiring actors. Up to a certain point, it's easy to identify with him; it's much harder to feel implicated in Chad's transparent insincerity.

When class is over, the barriers between the audience and the lab specimens remain up. If it were less distanced, the film might be as moving as it is chilling. But the effects of LaBute's distancing can also be a blessing of sorts. If it prevents the film from having a stronger emotional impact, it can also be seen as a form of respect for the audience: a refusal to direct us.